On April 15, Steve Winter asked the community "for a list of issues that players see as problems with 4E." The Community responded in droves in two threads: The official one in the Character Optimization forum, and this one in the What's a DM to Do? forum. EnWorld also participated with this thread. On May 3, Steve Winter thanked the community for its ongoing efforts and mused that Wizards needs "to hire an intern to sift through all of this raw data and collate it into a meaningful presentation."
In his blog, Timmeh has undertaken the herculean task of compiling the issues regarding players. He asked me to take on the comparatively smaller issue of organizing the issues that DMs face. I am doing that here in this blog.
I am not going to address most rules issues, even if they would concern both players and DMs (such as confusion over immediate actions, and problems caused by forced movement through zones). Timmeh is handling that already. Pretty much any rules issues that affect players will also affect DMs equally. So I will address only issues specific to Dungeon Masters.
What Works for DMs
Lots of stuff works. The consensus from the threads is that 4e is a DM's dream (and I concur). Monster design is streamlined and the monster stat blocks are well-regarded. Encounter design makes a lot of sense. Even the ease of house ruling got compliments. The game is well-balanced and challenging. Tiers make campaign arc planning a lot easier (but see below). The DMGs have lots of great advice. Minions and companion characters are lauded as a great addition to the game (but see below). Monster roles are fantastic (but see below). The use of terrain is great and lots of people enjoy the dungeon tiles and tokens. There were also compliments for the new default cosmology as being nicely geared towards exciting stories. DMs also love the cinematic style of combat that was achieved. Some complimented the mechanic of the disease track, and thought it could be expanded to encompass other long-term conditions. There were also compliments for the alternate rules presented in the Unearthed Arcana articles and the dungeon delve format.
What Needs Work for DMs
Existing Rules That Need Work
Bookkeeping Rules. There are some rules that, depending on how developed they are, are either annoyances to track, which provide mimimal benefits, or could be boosted up into something actually useful and fun. Each of these rules should either be scrapped, fully developed into something that adds to the game, or changed into an Unearthed Arcana-style optional rule:
- Encumberance. These rules are followed more in the breach than in the execution. The only things these rules appear to do is prevent dragonborn from riding horses.
- Milestones. This is an underutilized mechanic that it is annoying to track and provides haphazard benefits.
- Vehicles. The rules for these are unclear and rarely used. If they were better, we'd want more of them.
- Vision. Sunrods make vision irrelevant, and vision always defaults to the lowest common denominator. (I.e., why bother with darkvision if you have a human in the party who is going to insist on a lantern?)
Combat length. The most common complaint is that combat takes too long. Everybody has their own theory for why this is, and lots of people also deny there's a problem. While this could also go on the "advice" section, I think many people want the game to do a better job at making it mechanically easier to run.
Creatures. There are four categories of creatures that need work:
- Epic. There is an impression that epic monsters are not well calibrated to party defenses and powers at the epic tier.
- Minions and Automatic Damage. Some are unhappy that minions die automatically from automatic damage. (I am.) Some suggestions include: (i) minions can save to avoid automatic damage, (ii) automatic damage bloodies minion and imposes a -2 to attacks, saves, and defenses; (iii) automatic damage bloodies unbloodied minions and kills bloodied minions.
- Outdated. The damage values in Monster Manual 3 work fantastic, but many preexisting monsters have not been updated to that standard, resulting in many outdated monsters.
- Solo. They feel like a big bag of hit points, are not dynamic, and their combats feel like slogs.
- Triggers. Monsters with lots of triggered powers are hard to track. They need to be used sparingly. A player only needs to worry about one character's triggers -- his own. A DM needs to worry about three or more creatures, and he isn't nearly as familiar with creatures designed to die in one encounter as a player is with the character he runs for a whole campaign.
Magic Item Rarity. The rarity system is woefully incomplete. Pre-rarity items need to be recalibrated so there are more uncommon and rare items. Alternately, rares can be folded into artifacts. Given the incomplete rarity system, DMs have little guidance now on how to award treasure.
Published Adventurers. Some have suggested that the published adventures focus too much on combat and not enough on story.
Skill Challenges: This is a hot topic. Lots of people love them and think they work great. Lots of people don't. (I don't.) Those who don't make the following comments
- Limited Utility. Skill Challenges only work under specific criteria -- it makes sense to involve everyone. It makes sense for a variety of skills to be useful. It makes sense for there to be variations of success and failure. It's a lot of rules for a mechanic that is used in a limited number of scenarios
- Mood-Breaker. The Skill Challenge feels like an artificial game within the game. It is not easy to make entry into the Skill Challenge a seamless part of the game.
- Number of Players. As written the math is very swingy based on how many PCs are in the party.
- System Mastery. They take a lot of effort to work effectively. In contrast to other aspects of adventure design, Skill Challenges really seem to require a fair amount of system mastery that novice DMs will not find useful.
- Unhelpful Examples. The samples in the books and Mearls' articles are not sufficiently illustrative for purposes of helping DMs design their own skill challenges.
Traps. These are criticized as being hard to integrate into an encounter, hard to balance, and hard to make challenging.
Existing Tools That Need Work
Book Layout. Some complain the layout has too much "white space".
Compendium. The recent ritual index was great. now people want that in the Compendium, along with a better organization of Magic Items.
Maps. There have been requests to publish maps (even if only online) that the DM can print out and use as a battlemap, which can be printed to scale, and do not indicate where NPCs are located.
Monster Builder. Not surprisingly, lots of people desperately want the online Monster Builder to be able to make customized monsters. (Like me!)
Advice on DMing
DMs suggested a number of areas where the rules seem to work fine, but they could use more advice on how to make the most of those rules. I've broken these requests into several categories:
Dungeoncraft. Bring this series back, with a new writer if needed.
Encounter Design. DMs seek help in the following areas of designing encounters:
- Alternate Combat Goals. The DMGs touch briefly on combat where the goal is not to kill the other side, but some other goal, but little guidance or mechanics on how to make that challenging and fair.
- Customizing to the Party. DMs want advice on building encounters for parties missing some combat roles, or heavy on some combat roles. This would also make it easier for players to choose the characters they want rather than feeling an obligation to take a character just to fill a combat role.
- Monster Synergies. DMs want advice on improving how monsters work together. Monster roles are a start but don't explain how monsters synergize with one another.
- Unusual Milieu. DMs want advice for designing and running encounters in unusual milieus like urban areas, tundra, and the like. They could also use guidance on how to select monsters in conjunction with terrain and traps.
Epic Tier. DMs want advice on designing and running campaigns set in the epic tier.
Mechanical Design. DMs want advice on how to homebrew their own mechanics. Specifically, they have asked for assistance in the following areas:
- Magic Item Design. DMs want advice on making magic items and artifacts.
- Minion Design. DMs want advice on making minions, particularly how to give them interesting powers that are not overpowered.
- Monster Power Design. DMs want advice on making balanced monster powers.
Things That Don't Exist... But Should
Atypical Encounter Mechanics. DMs want more articles like the ones on Strongholds and Terrain Powers (shameless plug). Some suggestions include:
- Intermediate combat. Short minion combats are fun and quick though not particularly challenging. Standard combats are fun and challenging, but long. DMs want something in between -- a short two or three-round combat that can be lethal, challenging, and fun.
- Mass combat. DMs want to be able to stage battles involving armies and the PCs.
- Politics. DMs want to be able to run a campaign with mechanics that help them run political intrigue.
- Three-Dimensional Combat. DMs want advice on designing and running three-dimensional combat in the astral, aerial and aquatic arenas.
Creatures. DMs want new monsters, such as:
- Elite Minions. Some DMs want a creature that sits conceptually between minions and standard creatures.
- Niche. Monsters for specific categories, like underwater and nonundead shadow creatures.
Epic Support. DMs want more epic creatures, items, etc. (There's also some demand for more paragon support.)
Ch-ch-ch-changes. Some complain there is too much errata and suggest more playtesting or less frequent errata.
Flavor. Some complain that 4e has taken too much flavor out of the game. It is acknowledged that designers have already started to correct for this, so that trend should be encouraged.
Disassociated Mechanics. 4e is very flexible with reflavoring, and this means the rules are no longer serving as the world's laws of physics. The complicated rules of the past for building NPCs allowed you to insert more character quirks and history. Some people don't like this change. Some people do. (I do.)